U.S. Looking To Reduce Kabul Embassy Staff As Afghanistan Mission Changes | WGLT

U.S. Looking To Reduce Kabul Embassy Staff As Afghanistan Mission Changes

Feb 14, 2019
Originally published on February 14, 2019 9:15 pm

President Trump has said he wants to move away from "endless wars," and suggested cutting half of the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Now the State Department is looking at cuts of its own in Afghanistan.

NPR has obtained talking points written by staff at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. It says the embassy is too big and calls for a "comprehensive review" to determine that it's "right-sized for the long-term."

Here's a key paragraph in the one-page document.

"Our presence in Kabul has grown over the years to the current extraordinary footprint. This Mission is now the largest in the world by far, and bigger than we should be (twice the size of other large embassies and 35 percent larger than Baghdad)."

The Kabul embassy did not respond to a request for comment. A State Department official would only say "we do not comment on internal communications." One official told NPR the cuts are being pushed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Officials rarely discuss the size of any embassy, and there's no sense in the document what the right size is for the one in Kabul. Staffing in Kabul is clearly in the thousands, including contractors and local staff. It sits on a sprawling campus of offices and housing in the center of the city, across from the U.S. military headquarters.

An expansion of the embassy four years ago cost some $800 million. It included 1,200 desks and nearly 700 beds.

The planned cuts to diplomats in Kabul come as the military is planning its own reductions. Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan, meeting with NATO allies in Brussels, attempted to calm any talk of a swift U.S. withdrawal. There are some 8,400 troops from other NATO and coalition countries in Afghanistan, in addition to the 14,000 U.S. troops stationed there.

"There will be no unilateral troop reduction," Shanahan told his fellow defense leaders. "That was one message of the meeting today. We'll be coordinated. We're together."

American special operators partner with Afghan commandos, going on missions to track down Taliban leaders and Islamic State fighters. Thousands of other U.S. soldiers stay on bases and train Afghans.

Diplomats, for their part, rarely leave the embassy grounds as they did in the past to travel around the country. That's because of security concerns, as violence has increased in Afghanistan. But there is frustration among embassy staff about not being able to move freely, and being cloistered inside the maze of buildings.

The document says the State Department still plans a strong diplomatic presence in Kabul, "focused on achieving a sustainable peace, supporting a successful presidential election, and moving the Afghans toward self-reliance."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Trump wants to draw down U.S. military forces in Afghanistan and move away from what he called endless wars. His administration is talking about scaling back the roughly 14,000 troops while pushing a peace deal with the Taliban. As NPR's Tom Bowman reports, they're also looking at sharp cuts at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The State Department has begun what it calls a comprehensive review of its staffing at the Kabul embassy to determine that it's, quote, "right size for the long term." That's according to talking points obtained by NPR put together by embassy staff in the Afghan capital. The one-page document says the embassy has an extraordinary footprint and is now the largest in the world, twice the size of other large embassies, 35 percent bigger than Baghdad.

The Kabul embassy did not respond to a request for comment. The State Department official would only say we do not comment on internal communications. One official said the cuts are being pushed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Officials rarely discuss the size of any embassy, and there's no sense in the document what the right size is for the one in Kabul.

Staffing in Kabul is clearly in the thousands, including contractors and local staff. It sits on a sprawling campus of offices and housing in the center of the city across from the U.S. military headquarters. An expansion of the embassy four years ago cost some $800 million and included 1,200 desks and nearly 700 beds. The planned cuts to diplomats in Kabul come as the military's planning its own reductions.

Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan, meeting with NATO allies in Brussels, attempted to calm any talk of a swift U.S. withdrawal. There were some 9,000 troops from other NATO and coalition countries in Afghanistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PATRICK SHANAHAN: There will be no unilateral troop reduction. I mean, that was one of the messages of the meeting today. We'll be coordinated. We're together.

BOWMAN: American special operators partner with Afghan commandos, going on missions to track down Taliban leaders and Islamic State fighters. Thousands of other U.S. soldiers stay on bases and train Afghans. Diplomats, for their part, rarely leave the embassy grounds, as they did in the past, to travel around the country. That's because of security concerns as violence has increased in Afghanistan.

The document says the State Department still plans a strong diplomatic presence in Kabul focused on achieving a sustainable peace, supporting upcoming presidential elections and moving Afghans towards self-reliance. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.